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Friday, November 28, 2008

A Creative Use of LEGO

I saw this site a while ago, but recently rediscovered it. The fellow who put this together has a vast amount of time on his hands, but it is remarkably well done. Go have a look at The Brick Testament.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

"That's why I never kiss 'em on the mouth."

In keeping with my status as a dork, geek, and nerd, I watch a lot of science fiction. I'm not particularly sure why, as the acting is often very bad and the plots not much better. Maybe I just like all the shiny lights. I also often find the "science" on the shows painfully bad, but, like with almost all television, I mostly watch it to turn that part of my brain off and relax. In a similar way to which Isaac Asimov recommends watching mindless action films in his essay The Eureka Phenomenon, Sci Fi television to me is a way to relax the brain and recharge.

For all my disparagement, however, there are some parts that I really do like. For example, despite having some truly abysmal actors in its ranks, Star Trek does have some good ones too. I will never figure out how Star Trek managed to snag Patrick Stewart, one of the premiere Shakespearean actors of his day. Brent Spiner is also highly enjoyable, as well as many of the supporting characters from Deep Space Nine. The one thing I will never understand, though, is how some shows make it and others do not.

Take, for example, Stargate: SG-1. How is that the longest running continuous science fiction series in history (technically, that is a claim disputed by Dr. Who, so it is more correct to say it is the longest running North American science fiction series)? Yes, there were some funny bits and even some clever bits, but for the most part that show was background noise. I never really cared about the characters in it to any excessive degree, nor was I ever wildly worried about what the future of the show might hold. Yet somehow the show lasted 10 seasons and so far has had two movies (I believe both went straight to television).

Contrast SG-1 with a show like Firefly. It only lasted a season, but its fourteen episodes make up some of the most enjoyable science fiction I've ever seen. The characters are witty, well-acted, and engaging. The story is continuous and interwoven without making it absolutely necessary to have seen preceeding episodes or have long recaps at the beginning of each new episode. Also, they don't have sound effects in space! That one little bit of realism is enough for me to forgive all the terrible neuroscience espoused by Simon Tam when he scans his sister's brain to figure out what the government did to her. The fact that it only lasted a single season just never seemed quite fair to me.

I know they made a movie, but, like all things Joss Whedon does, he decided it was best to destroy his creation in his way than let it fade away. Between the rewriting of the series' history, random character death, and virtual lack of certain characters from the movie's storyline, I was not a fan.

Anyway, I am procrastinating right now by rambling about science fiction, so I should probably stop it and get back to work.

Quotations

There haven't been any pearly words of wisdom from the past posted for a while, so I thought I'd rectify that before I head off to my lab class this morning.

"There will always be a lost dog somewhere that will prevent me from being happy." - Jean Anouilh, French dramatist, 1910-87

"Drastic measures is Latin for a whopping." - F. Anstey (Thomas Anstey Guthrie), English writer, 1856-1934

"I do not mind what language in opera is sung in so long as it is a language I don't understand." - Edward Appleton, English physicist, 1892-1965

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Graduate School Applications

People may have noticed a bit of a lapse in posting over the last week or so. With the first round of graduate school applications due on 1 December, my mind has been otherwise occupied. Between composing statements of purpose and tracking down transcripts, I haven't really felt like posting much of anything substantive.

The first two schools I am applying to are University of California Berkeley, and University of California San Diego, both in neuroscience with a plan to do the computational specialization. I just managed to find this morning some admission statistics, so I'm a little worried since my GPA is a bit on the low side (but my general GRE scores are a bit on the high side, so maybe it will balance?). Oh well, the California schools are all in my "stretch school" category, so I'll just have to see what happens. Since application deadlines extend into mid-January (with one additonal one in mid-March), there might be periodic bouts of failure to maintain this blog as I concentrate on application completion. I apologize in advance.

Some Random Cuteness


This video I found adorable, and it makes me miss having pets around. Last night I went to a friend's house where there are two cats, and, though I rationally recognize why living in a small place on a student budget makes having a pet unreasonable, I really wanted a cat of my own. This is especially true since Sparky, my family's calico cat and sole remaining pet from my childhood, passed away a few months ago, so now I don't even have a cat to return to visit on holidays. Anyway, this was meant to be a light-hearted and humorous post (it's a cat going down stairs in an awkward fashion!), so to try and lighten the mood again I will reference another of my favourite xkcd comics.

Friday, November 21, 2008

And this is why I hate him

In my last post, I made it fairly clear that I detest George W. Bush. Here is another example of why. I just hope Congress manages to recover the spine they seemed to have checked at the door for the past couple years and stop passing whatever Bush wants in the name of "bipartisanship". Bipartisanship is not always a good thing, because sometimes the other guy really is wrong. It's not tearing the country apart to say it - in fact, it's good governance. If debate and argument were not meant to be part of the government, why would there be one hundred people in the Senate and over four hundred in the House of Representatives?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Baffling

Pretty much anyone that knows me is aware that I am not and never have been a fan of George W. Bush. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Despite all my antipathy toward the man and his governance of our southern neighbour for the past eight years, I was still rather shocked to see this:



I have used the term baffled a lot on this blog lately, but, once again, politics baffles me.

The Mathie Difference

I told my girlfriend the following joke the other day:

"An infinite number of mathematicians walks into a bar. The first one orders a beer. The second one orders half a beer. The third one orders a quarter of a beer. It continues that way until the bartender interrupts to say, "You are all a bunch of idiots," and pours two beers."

While she greatly enjoyed it, her response was, "You know, when I tell that joke I am going to specify at the beginning that it is a countably infinite number of mathematicians, just to avoid any initial confusion."

The thought never even occurred to me. I guess my brain still hasn't fully registered that there is a difference between countable and uncountable infinity. Sigh.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Irksome

For everyone, there are some things that drive them nuts. It often seems, though, that people in mathematics and science have an inordinate amount of neuroses bordering on obsessive-compulsive. As an aside, that is one of the reasons I like the webcomic xkcd so much. In addition to the general dorky humour, he seems to get the comical OCD things that I cannot help but think about. Of course, these neuroses often manifest in fairly different ways. For example, I remember making a joke about being OCD when some friends from engineering science were over at my place, only to be shocked by one of my friends arguing that I couldn't possible be OCD because my counter was so full of randomly discarded objects, something which drove him nuts and he had to restrain himself from trying to tidy (clearly, he had never played cards with me... I neurotically straighten the deck, without even thinking about it. If someone points it out and asks me to stop, I actually find it incredibly difficult to restrain myself).

Anyway, one thing that has always bothered me is poor bathroom layout. It seems like something that should be incredibly easy to do when the bathroom is being installed. After all, bathrooms are rooms that everyone has used before, so it's not like a high tech lab where the technicians installing the equipment might not fully understand what they are used for. Today, for example, I went into a bathroom where there were five sinks but only one soap dispenser and one electric hand-dryer. Who thought that made sense?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Some more of the same

This blog was ostensibly started to discuss only scientific and philosophical subjects related to intelligence. However, because those posts tend to take a lot of time, I found I wasn't publishing posts as often as I would like, and the blog sort of devolved into whatever random subjects caught my fancy. While I think my posts on subjects pertaining to intelligence are the more original and interesting of my posts, I hope any readers will not be annoyed with a continuance of non-science articles as well. That said, here is another politically-minded rant of a post.

I was awfully annoyed at this Globe and Mail article this morning. I simply do not understand how Bush and other conservatives can continue to tout the rhetoric that "more regulation could choke economic growth", even though whatever growth it is choking off is likely to be illusory bubble growth that is bound to burst and cause widespread mayhem and depression. Sure, regulation makes it harder for a select few to get grossly and inordinately wealthy, but to be honest, I am completely fine with that.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Irony and Humour is Intense

I am in bed sick today, so was amusing myself by watching some videos on the internet. One such video was one of Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the World" segments:



The part which made me chuckle the most was his mention of the second place conservative blogger John Hinderaker at the blog Power Line, in which Hinderaker has a post in which he states:

"Obama thinks he is a good talker, but he is often undisciplined when he speaks. He needs to understand that as President, his words will be scrutinized and will have impact whether he intends it or not. In this regard, President Bush is an excellent model; Obama should take a lesson from his example. Bush never gets sloppy when he is speaking publicly. He chooses his words with care and precision, which is why his style sometimes seems halting. In the eight years he has been President, it is remarkable how few gaffes or verbal blunders he has committed. If Obama doesn't raise his standards, he will exceed Bush's total before he is inaugurated."

I really am not sure how he can say that seriously. While Olbermann covers some of Bush's gaffs briefly in his clip, there are plenty more. Perhaps Hinderaker, like everyone, grew desensitized over eight years of misspoken nonsense and grammatical travesties to the point where they stopped registering, leaving him with a memory gap that was somehow devoid of the public speaking disaster that was President Bush.

Understanding Through Mathematical Concepts

My great aunt is a wonderful lady. A worldly intellectual in her own right, she can speak knowledgeably about Thucydides (which she read in the original Greek, not that wimpy translation stuff I read) and other literature of which I could not hope to compile an exhaustive list, as well as hold her own in a discussion of history and politics, especially if it involves Korea (where she was born and raised through much of her childhood before returning home to Canada). I am also a big fan of my great uncle, but since it was my aunt that made the comment I am going to discuss, I will have to wait for another day to sing his praises. I bring up my esteem for my aunt to put in context a comment she made one night when my girlfriend and I were at my aunt and uncle's for dinner, in which she stated something to the effect that she didn't understand how mathematics could hold any draw as a subject since it was such a dry and abstract thing. I think it was somewhat unfortunate for her that she made such a comment at a table with her husband (a retired aeronautical engineer), my girlfriend (who studies physics and mathematics), a Russian fellow who sails with my uncle and his wife (both who studied mathematics and computer science before moving to Canada), and me (a former aerospace student and now student of computational neuroscience), so she may have been a little unfairly outnumbered by those who had ties to mathematics. A great cry went up around the table and everyone tried to explain all at once that mathematics was, in fact, a wonderful thing. I don't think my aunt (a former graduate of the humanities) was trying to be confrontational at all, but I think she really was baffled (and, unfortunately, I don't think any of our answers really cleared anything up at the time, since the best we came up with was simply that it helps you to see the world differently without really giving any examples). I also don't think my aunt is alone. For many people, mathematics remains a dry and stuffy subject, handy for balancing the books and maybe work in research and design (but even then, there are a fair share of engineers who forsook mathematics upon achieving their degree and getting a job), but beyond that they don't have a concept of it.

While I am no mathematician, I still enjoy mathematics and dabble in it in my studies. I will therefore endeavour to give an example of how mathematical concepts can help explain aspects of the world using a personal insight about another subject that also commonly baffles people: speciation in evolutionary biology. Among critics of evolution, one of the commonly fallacious argument given is, "if evolution is true, why doesn't a dog give birth to a cat?" (or some other ridiculous combination). While that is probably the most ridiculous formulation of the argument, the basic idea that trips people up is understanding how one species can evolve into another. This lack of understanding often leads to the lamentable "middle of the road" half-cocked compromise in which a person accepts "microevolution" while claiming that he still doesn't believe in "macroevolution". To give some insight into how speciation works, at least from a conceptual standpoint, I turn to probability and calculus.

Take a circle with a spinning dial mounted in the middle. If you mark a spot on the circle (say the spot corresponding with '12' on a clock face) as the 0 mark, then you can spin the dial and it will land with some anticlockwise angle from 0 to 360 degrees. Since there are an infinite number of points on the circle, however, if you take your measurement to an arbitrary level of exactness (landing at 10.0000000000001 is different from landing at 10 exactly), the probability of landing at any distinct spot is essentially 0. The only way to obtain a non-zero probability is to talk about a range of possible angles. The probability is then simply the length of that range divided by 360 (thus, having the dial land within the first 90 degrees has a probability of 90/360 = 1/4). Thus, the circle can be divided into regions, each one representing a range of possible angles and thus having a non-zero probability. However, at the borders we see that which region we are in becomes a harsh cut-off over a seemingly negligeable difference. For example, if we divide our circle into four regions of equal size (each representing 90 degree increments), 89.99999999... would fall into region 1 while 90.0000000...001 would fall into region 2, despite an arbitrarily small difference between the two of them. Take the idea of that circle and now morph it in your head to represent an evolutionary lineage. The population of organisms at each moment in time represents one single location on the circle. A region represents a species, and thus a species is said to evolve into another if its region precedes the other. But remember that the demarcation line of our regions was essentially an arbitrary cutoff, a boundary imposed to provide meaning to the system. There is no drastic change in the dial's position when we go from region 1 to region 2, but rather the change can be as infinitesimally small as we want. Likewise, the change from species A to species B is not some drastic, single moment of monumental change such as a dog giving birth to a cat, but is rather a collection of tiny bumps in the dial position as it gradually creeps along the circle going from region 1 to region 2. However, when one compares the dial position from somewhere near the middle of each region, it looks to be very far apart.

This is no lofty or profoundly insightful thing I have come up with. I also recognize that I may have taken some liberties with the specific terms and workings of both mathematics and evolutionary biology, so for anyone who is actually in those fields and upset with me, I apologize (and you have full permission to admonish me in the comments). However, it is something that I have discovered a surprising number of people never really put together on their own. The concept of infinitesimal steps from calculus is a profound thing, and with it many other concepts in the world can be illuminated more fully. That, to me, is how mathematics is not dry or dull. Its concepts are wide reaching, elegant, and profound. If a person understands mathematics, there is a huge variety of subjects that suddenly become easily grasped.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Xenophobia and Alien Fascination

I am going to indulge myself in some fanciful psychology now. While I often rail against the credulity and imprecision of psychology as a general field, that doesn't mean it isn't a fun way to pass the time. My main problem is its lack of rigour and self-correction, not the fun that can be had in utilizing the field to explore human nature. It is like literature and art - while some may make the argument that those should be taken into the fold of science (I haven't actually read the book and I enjoy Jonah Lehrer's blog, but I disagree with the premise that the book is touted to have. Perhaps reading it will change my mind, and I wouldn't mind giving it a shot at some point), I would rather say that much of psychology should be relegated to the social science and humanities status that encompasses art and literature. It is fascinating and fun to explore our humanity with words and conjectures, but it is rarely done rigorously and powerfully like the work done in most of the other sciences.

Anyway, with that preamble out of the way, I am going to launch into my exploration of one of the aspects of the human psyche. There were two events that got me thinking about the subject today of non-human animals. The first was an experiment on mice that we were performing in my lab course this morning and the enjoyment I got out of watching the adorableness that was the mouse's whisker twitches as he explored the box he was in (I certainly would not want to be a behavioural neuroscientist or psychologist. Giving injections or any of the other things done to animals in a laboratory I would find too difficult. While I recognize the benefit, I am squeamish and soft-hearted and enjoy my cognitive dissonance, thank you very much). The second event was a slide containing information about the variety of different somatosensory representations in different species, notably raccoons (and how they had a very similar proportion of cortical space devoted to finger control as that found in primates). That prompted me to think about how neat I find raccoons and their cleverness and aptitude for mischief, and then a brief internet search into raccoons as pets (apparently they do not make good pets, as they tend to have an intense ornery streak as adults including indignant defecation on owner's belongings and a tendency to bite). From my brief sadness at finding out that, like many of the other creatures I have often wistfully thought of as having as a pet, I was never going to have a raccoon as a pet, I got to thinking about the odd propensity of people for domestication of other species. While much of domestication can be explained by the utility of it (and we are not the only ones who engage in such practices, with fascinating ecological tales of ants and aphids or butterflies (the guy's voice in the video I actually found kind of annoying, but you get the idea) and other such relationships found in nature textbooks), there are clearly indirect psychological benefits as well (not for everyone. Some people genuinely have no enjoyment in interaction with nonhumans. While I find that baffling, it clearly exists).

The thing is, domestication simply facilitates the process. It makes the other organism more prone to like us and accept interaction with humans, but there are many examples of non-domestic animal friendships. Some of my favourites include Jessica the Hippo and Owen and Mzee (odd that they both include hippos). Clearly, there is at least a small propensity for interspecies bonding even without domestication. What makes this such an appealing concept? Before I address that concept, though, I want to bring up another one: xenophobia. Basically, fear of those foreign and different is a powerful psychological motivator at the heart of ingroup-outgroup conflicts. It doesn't have to include humans and humans, but is also at the heart of the general trend to treat non-human animals as less deserving than humans (after all, if the colour of one's skin is enough to inspire contempt and hatred, not even sharing the same form is an even more blatant marker of difference. The main reason it is rarely labelled as xenophobia, though, is people take it as defacto that other animals are so different from us that it doesn't need to be acknowledged). So how can interspecies relationships work and be such a powerfully uplifting thing (for at least some people) when there is an inborn tendency for mistrust of those who are different that sometimes fails to even reach past boundaries within a species, nevermind to another species?

At this point, I began to ramble on in a long-winded analysis of the intricacies of interspecies relationships. However, this post has already gotten longer than I intended, so perhaps I will leave such an analysis to a later time and jump ahead to the conclusion I was intending to reach. It seems to me like there is a competing psychological need for empathic understanding instilled by our social nature and the instinctive mistrust of strangers needed for simple survival. While the mistrust of strangers is necessary without being able to guarantee the trustworthiness of others, it isn't pleasant. Conflict is messy and uncomfortable, and though xenophobia can often be gratifying and exhilerhating, that is only when one is surrounded by likeminded individuals railing belligerently against the out-group that is not present. When one is forced to come face to face with the brutality and hate that was so previously euphoric (especially if one is forced to deal with the outgroup on relatively equal terms, like in a war, rather than in unequal terms like a lynch mob), the rush of happiness inspired by belonging with the ingroup is tempered somewhat by the unpleasantness of conflict. I think most people who are not insanely bigoted understand this and frown upon that aspect of their psyche. Forming a bond with a member of an outgroup, therefore, is a way of throwing off the shackles of xenophobia and searching for a linking trust rather than dwelling on the separating differences. Instead of saying "You walk on four legs and I walk on two, so I look down upon you", it is saying "I like to scratch you behind the ear and you like it when I do, so let's be friends." We can think that if we can set aside our mistrust and fear of the other party in this situation, maybe we can do so again in the future and have a more peaceful life. Or maybe I'm just a dork wrapped up in his own fanciful psychology. Whatever the case may be, I know some day I'd like to rub a tiger's belly, scratch a hippo behind the ear, or play a game with a raccoon. I also know none of those are going to happen, and even if given the opportunity I'm not sure I'd have the courage to go through with it. In a way, that thought makes me very sad.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembrance Day

This isn't exactly a holiday to be happy about, so rather I'll just point out that it is happening here in Canada. It is Remembrance Day today, so spare a few thoughts for the fallen.

How to Think About Science

I was listing to the opening segment of an interesting set of broadcasts collectively entitled "How to Think About Science" and I thought it had some very interesting points. The one I thought that was most interesting was when Simon Schaffer pointed out that science, while normally celebrated as promoting skepticism and a reliance upon personal evidence and observation, was in reality a systematic organization of trust. You will have to listen to the broadcast for his full argument, but it is essentially that no one can practically witness evidence for everything one accepts as true, but where science excels is in giving a powerful framework for deciding who and what should be given credence.

I thought that was a very interesting and thought-provoking observation. It is quite simple and seems obvious after hearing it, but in many ways those are the best thoughts to have. I found myself thinking about it this morning as I read the news. So many of our world's problems, especially in the political sphere, are based on issues of trust. It is one of the exceptionally messy aspects of politics that makes me want to practically avoid the field. It is also why pseudoscientific things like creationism/intelligent design and alternative medicine continue to flourish outside of the scientific world (in the realm of the popular and political) where there is not that system of rigorous evaluation to keep them in check.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Some Words of Wisdom to Start the Week

"Women are really much nicer than men:
No wonder we like them."
"No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home in Weston-super-Mare."
- Kingsley Amis, English novelist and poet, 1922-95

"Children's talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives." - Maya Angelou, American writer, 1928-

"God is on everyone's side... And, in the last analysis, he is on the side of those with plenty of money and large armies." - Jean Anouilh, French dramatist, 1910-87

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Top-down Processing in Visual Perception Part I: Introduction and Some Examples

One of the subjects I have written about before is machine vision and the incredible difficulty of developing a robust visual processing system that can equal the robustness of our own visual system. It shouldn't be entirely surprising, though, that our visual system is as incredibly powerful as it is, since a huge proportion of our brain is utilized primarily for visual processing. One of the interesting debates in perception psychology and neuroscience is whether the brain performs bottom-up or top-down processing. As with most things (especially in psychology), neither one is entirely correct and your brain utilizes a combination of the two. Optical illusions and trick images are one relatively simple way to explore the way our brain processes visual information, and they are also fairly fun to look at.

Bottom-up processing basically means your brain reads in the raw visual information captured by the retina and gradually figures out what it means as one moves farther along the processing chain that is your cerebral cortex. Top-down processing means you start with an idea of what you ought to be seeing (most likely determined by recent sensory information, other sensory clues, and your past experience). Your brain clearly does some bottom-up processing, since you react to raw changes in the visual stimuli even if there was no reason to expect that change. What is fairly surprising, though, is top-down processing is also clearly involved in visual processing. Effectively introducing top-down processing into artificial visual systems, however, is quite difficult, and it would seem that the top-down algorithms instituted by our brains (and their handy parallel architecture) are what keep us currently so far ahead of computers.

One example of top-down processing that is fairly easy to demonstrate is the blind spot. In your retina you have a small area devoid of receptors where nerves and blood vessels enter and leave your eye. This is normally not a problem since the blindspot of each eye falls on a different area of your visual field, so the sensory perceptions of one eye can compensate for the other. Also, your eyes are almost constantly performing saccades (small jumps around to focus on different regions of the visual field). However, if you close one eye and keep your other eye locked on a specific target, your blind spot becomes anchored in place. You do not realise this, though, because your brian manages to fill in that area of your visual field with its best guess as to what is there. A quick way to demonstrate this is to take a piece of scrap paper and put two X's on it about eight centimeters apart. Then close one of your eyes and stare at the opposite mark with your open eye (for example, if you closed your left eye, look at the left X with your right eye). Hold the paper about half an arm's length in front of you and gradually move it closer. At a certain point, the X on the periphery of your vision should disappear. When it does, it is sitting in your blind spot, and your brain fills in that area with it's best guess (in this case, blank white paper).

Another example that occurs slightly higher up in your visual processing is the Necker Cube, shown here.

This simple drawing forms a three dimensional clear cube. It is ambiguous, though, whether it is intended to be in one of two possible orientations: are you looking slightly down onto the cube, or slightly up at it (in other words, are the bottom two corners corners on the front or back face of the cube)? For most people, there is a default orientation when they first see it. However, after staring at the cube for a few moments, they can cause it to 'flip' into the other orientation. At no point, though, can both orientations be held in one's head at once (at least, I cannot manage to do that). It would seem that your brain takes the visual information provided about the cube's edges and then tries to fit an interpretation on it. Since more than one interpretation is possible, your brain alternates between them. However, whenever one particular interpretation is selected, the others are suppressed to avoid conflicting interpretations of a visual scene.

Continue reading in Part II: Faces.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Quotations

"There is no democracy in physics. We can't say that some second-rate guy has as much right to opinion as Fermi." - Luis Walter Alvarez, American physicist, 1911-88

"A monarch is a merchantman which sails well, but will sometimes strike on a rock, and go to the bottom; whilst a republic is a raft which would never sink, but then your feet are always in the water." - Fisher Ames, American politician, 1758-1808

"He was of the faith chiefly in the sense that the church he currently did not attend was Catholic." - Kingsley Amis, English novelist and poet, 1922-95, from his book One Fat Englishman

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

This Time Four Years Ago

Four years ago I didn't think it was conceivable for Bush to win an election. Not only had his first four years in office been an absolute farce, but his entire campaign (at least what was visible from here in Canada) had been dirty attacks on Kerry rather than anything about Bush. If you went to Kerry's website, it was all about Kerry and his plan for the country. If you went to Bush's website, it was all about Kerry and how he was a terrible flip-flopper and his combat experience was somehow less patriotic than Bush's non-combat experience.

In non-political news, I had an assignment due in my design course. I forget what it was exactly... I think it may have been circuit wiring or PIC microchip programming, but whatever it was it was tedious, frustrating, long, and due the next day. It was going to keep me and my design partners up all night, so we decided we might as well follow the election results.

Then, the States started to turn red. It was heartbreaking, confusing, and horrifying, all at the same time. The night got worse and worse. Electronics fried. States turned red. The world felt like something was wrong with it. When the end came, it just didn't seem to make sense. Bush had won, this time even with the popular vote. It just didn't make sense. John Stewart looked devastated. The only solace I found was in the website www.sorryeverybody.com.

This might seem melodramatic, but this was only my second year back in Canada after four years in the States and then two years in Moscow going to school with a predominantly American class. In many ways the birth of my political awareness centered around American politics, and I cared about the international consequences of the election in terms of political and environmental fallout. It is the same reason I dislike the conservative government we have in Canada. While the Liberals may have been corrupt and relatively useless (from the little I've followed of domestic politics), at least they seemed to care about our international reputation and the importance of things like international law and environment. While the American government has always been isolationist and unilateral to a frustrating degree, Bush's government brought that back to a level not seen since the Monroe Doctrine (perhaps the failure of Congress to join the League of Nations would be a strong contender too).

Basically, what I am trying to say is, despite all conscious effort not to care too much about the election results, I find myself oddly excited tonight. That scares me, because I was excited four years ago, too, and ended up terribly disappointed. I hope this time the sane portion of the American electorate really has woken up and realised that if they really do care about their country, they need to act.

Some Really Bad Brain Science

Last night before going to bed I watched the pilot episode for a television show. To be honest, I was expecting it to be quite bad, and the only reason I was watching it was to see the familiar scenes from the University of Toronto that had been extensively used throughout the show. The show that I am speaking about is called Fringe. It is like a newer version of the X-Files, just minus the aliens and with an added dose of corporate rather than governmental evil. The FBI headquarters are in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, one of my favourite buildings on campus. It is home to the mathematics, computer science, and engineering science departments, as well as contains some of the nicer lecture halls and tutorial rooms. The building also has a remarkably distinct architecture that blends old brickwork with modern steel and glass designs (for example, the formerly external wall of the next door Koeffler Centre forms the southern wall of the Bahen Centre lobby). With such a distinct interior design, it is kind of thrilling to see the protagonist of the show charge up the same glass-walled spiral staircase I walk up at least once a week and enter the large room I know as the Great Hall of Computing (of course, fancied up with some extra desks and plasma screens on the wall). Additionally, front campus was used for one of the final scenes (supposedly taking place at Harvard, but really taking place in front of University College here at U of T... ironically, it is only about a dozen meters away from the secret meeting place of the sinister ivy league fraternity the Skulls that Fringe costar Joshua Jackson ought to be so familiar with... I wonder if he felt a little nostalgic returning to the University College building for filming almost a decade after that movie I never saw). Also, there was one building I was sure I've had an exam in but could not place... I think it might have been one of Trinity College's buildings.

Anyway, despite all the exciting University of Toronto locations, the show was immensely bad. Stop reading if you mind spoilers, but I recommend you don't care for this particular show. Not only was it exceedingly predictable (main character is a young blonde lady who starts in a covert relationship with a handsome coworker. While it is nice for the two of them to have a relationship, the audience never got the visceral thrill of seeing it develop, so clearly he is going to either die or be evil. Turns out it's both), but the "fringe science" it was supposed to be dealing with was useless pseudoscience, paranoid (but for the wrong reasons based on misunderstanding) fear of actual science, or blatant misunderstandings of basic science. I felt a particular twinge of annoyance when, in the show's introduction, the names of all the "fringe science" subjects flash up on the screen and, amid such things as precognition and psychokinesis, it lists artificial intelligence (and also nanotechnology, but since I don't study nanotechnology I wasn't quite as annoyed about that one). AI and nanotech are not at all comparable to precognition and psychokinesis. Two of those are pseudoscience, and two are actual science.

I keep getting sidetracked, though. What made me decide to write about this show was that one of the important plot developments involved the main character going to drug induced stupor in a large tank of water with a bunch of fancy electrodes hooked up to her head and a pair of metal prongs attached to a bundle of wires inserted into the base of her skull (probably going either into her brain stem or on either side of her spinal cord at the top of the neck, it was kind of hard to tell exactly where they inserted the prongs). That contraption is somehow used to synchronize her brain waves with those of her dying lover (this is before it is discovered he's evil) who is also in a drug induced coma (and apparently frozen to keep the rate of cellular decay down, but that doesn't seem to prevent brain activity nor do they seem to take any special precautions to keep him at a low temperature... it is awfully confusing), and this synchrony of brain waves allows them to communicate subconsciously (which apparently means they meet up with fully coherent forms (matrix style) in a weird, shadowy dream state to talk for a bit and then she is able to experience his memories firsthand). I would like at this point to unequivocally state that that is not at all how brain waves work. Brain waves are NOT how thoughts are formed or transfered, but are rather the electrical dipole created by summated post-synaptic potentials. I think I had a post about this a while ago. For whatever reason, brain waves are one of those things that pseudoscients love to talk about and use to proffer all sorts of weird and entirely unfounded theories of consciousness and consciousness manipulation. It's rather annoying.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Scientist Appreciation: PZ Myers

I haven't done a scientist appreciation in a while, but I have been thinking about this one for about two weeks now. It is a slightly unorthodox scientist appreciation, in that it is primarily an appreciation of PZ Myers' promotional efforts for science rather than his own work specifically (not that he doesn't do good scientific work, it's just not exactly in my field), kind of like my appreciation of Isaac Asimov's contribution to science. Also similar to Isaac Asimov, in many ways it is not PZ Myers' status as a scientist which makes him most famous (although, instead of being famous for writing science fiction, he is famous for his lack of religious views and his willingness to write about such a lack on the internet).

This post, however, isn't about PZ Myers' religion (or lack thereof). It is about his commitment to further an appreciation for science and scientific issues. While much of his blog is centered about intermittently laughing and gnashing one's teeth at the outrageous idiocy of the anti-scientific, I think it is an important contribution to make. Exposing some of the ludicrous claims and fabrications of pseudoscientists might help people think twice about other statements when no supporting evidence is offered. PZ Myers provides an indefatigable stream of commentary, humour, and substantive science and science policy posts. While I may not always agree with his stance on things, when I do not it is very often due to a preconceived notion and ignorant crudility on my part. More imporantly, though, the near constant stream of information provides a place on the internet where those who care about science and scientific issues can gather (if somewhat passively). Since mainstream news doesn't seem to care much about science (after all, look at how much this year's American election revolved around the discussion of science... other than the mocking of fruit fly research), PZ Myers has personally developed an extensive outlet of news and relevant links. Blogs run by skeptics and science enthusiasts may be a dime a dozen on the internet (case in point, look at mine!), but no one does it quite like PZ Myers. For that, he has earned this edition of Scientist Appreciation.

An Interesting Article

I thought this was an interesting article. You might ask why I am posting a link to it, though, since I do read a lot of interesting articles that don't get links... the truth is, I was excited to see that the fellow now lives in Cranbrook. While I'm not actually from Cranbrook, (I'm from Creston, which is an even smaller town in the vicinity of Cranbrook (which forces me to fly into Cranbrook whenever I want to go home to visit my parents)), that whole region is referenced in the news so rarely, I think I am allowed to get a little excited when I see it happen. It does strike me as kind of odd, though, that when the Kootenays make it into the news, it is usually about some sort of connection to weirdly fundamentalist religious offshoots...

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Some More Campaign Funnies...

Not to overly pick on John McCain, but I really enjoyed this clip in which, not only does he refer to Obama's VP running mate as "Joe the Biden", but later as Senator O'Biden (some sort of weird combination of Biden and Obama?).



Then, of course, this one is old news, but it still makes me laugh... there's nothing like really awkwardly saying the exact opposite of what you actually wanted to say.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Some Horrified Bafflement

Those that read the blog Pharyngula will already have been made aware of this, but I thought it was worth discussing here too. Apparently, the Christian Children's Fund turned down $17,000 in donations raised at GenCon this year because part of that money was raised by selling Dungeons and Dragons products. I find that such a confusing slap in the face. For a charity to say, "We don't want your money", they are basically labelling you as a vile, amoral, and corrupt element of society that has so tainted the money you are offering that it isn't worth accepting, despite the number of children that $17,000 could actually feed and clothe. The fact that somehow playing an imaginative game can make a person so morally reprehensible that their money is no longer acceptable by a charity I find just utterly baffling.

I suppose I should say one last thing before I end this. I don't understand what fuels the stigma against Dungeons and Dragons. It is a game (a rather fun one, in my opinion). Sure, it takes up a lot of time (which is why I haven't played in years), but that is partly what makes it so attractive for kids in junior high and high school who happen to not want to spend hours drinking, driving dangerously, and pursuing otherwise "high risk" behaviour that is so common in teenagers. It is a social activity for the socially awkward (and the not so socially awkward, as I have known some cool people who play D&D too). The fact that there are angels and demons and a pantheon of gods might be construed as corrupting, but one of the amazing things about D&D is, if you are a monotheistic nut who cannot handle a polytheistic religion even in a wholly and entirely ficitious universe, you can easily change those aspects. Replace the D&D pantheon with a single god (and perhaps his enemy, so for Christians Satan could be included as a force of evil). Then all clerics serve that god, and you can have them fight the forces of the devil for hours on end, making you feel spiritually superior as well as giving you something to pass the hours with.

Anyway, other than professing bafflement and I think some justified indignation, I'm not sure what else to say. There are plenty of other charities out there who do very similar things (like Plan USA), so I would suggest giving donations to them if you are looking for a charity to donate to.